Six years ago, government forces opened fire on buses carrying a group of young men, all of them students at a teacher training college in rural Ayotzinapa, Mexico. Even now, the reason for the attack remains unclear. One theory holds that local officials were angry at the students, who planned to travel to Mexico City for a march commemorating the deaths of pro-democracy activists decades earlier, for their left-wing activism. Or, in a region known for its heroin trade, perhaps they had run afoul of drug dealers by inadvertently borrowing buses meant to transport narcotics.

Whatever the motive, the apparently coordinated attack left six dead and dozens wounded. Another 43 were loaded onto government buses and taken away, never to be seen again. All of the missing students are believed to have been murdered, though no one has ever been prosecuted for their disappearance.

The mass disappearance of the Ayotzinapa students prompted protests across Mexico and became a symbol of entrenched government corruption and the ability of criminals and government forces to act with impunity. It also focused attention on Mexico’s historically fraught relationship with its Escuelas Normales Rurales, the state-sponsored rural teacher training colleges known for their left-wing activism.

Dissertation Year Fellow Carla Villanueva, a historian, is studying the role that Ayotzinapa and other normales rurales, as they are known, played in Mexico during the 1960s and how their development reflected – and challenged – the country’s increasingly authoritarian political climate during the Cold War.

“The history of these schools in crucial to understanding 20th century politics in Mexico,” she said.

The normales rurales were locally popular and often served as the only pathway to education for rural youth beyond primary school. After the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century, the schools embraced a leftist curriculum that promoted economic and social justice; the state held them up as a vanguard of rural values.

That changed starting in the 1940s, when the normales rurales embraced a curriculum that promoted national unity, economic efficiency, and vocational training – all concepts at odds with the socialist ideology of earlier years.

Thanks in large part to their nationwide student federation, normalistas rurales, as students at the teacher training colleges were known, were able to maintain a leftist ideology, even generations after the government pushed for more conservative ideas. To quell dissent, Mexico shut down half the schools in 1969. And at times, the government resorted to violence to control the students.

“Discipline became synonymous with education reform,” Villanueva said.

Villanueva video
Watch: Carla introduces her research in Fall 2019.

The history of the normales rurales after 1945 has gone virtually unstudied due to a lack of easily available documents. Villanueva’s dissertation works to fill in that gap, examining how Mexico’s emerging democracy struggled with authoritarianism, the unique political culture that emerged from the normales rurales, and how Cold War anxieties manifested themselves in rural Mexico.

Read more about her research below.

Why were the normales rurales so important to Mexico? And why is there growing interest among scholars in these schools today?

The rural teacher training colleges were part of the post-revolution reforms to expand education to rural communities. And in the 1930s, education officials imagined the schools as institutions that could help implement the socially left reforms of the period, such as land distribution.

On Sept. 26, 2014, the Mexican government forcibly took 43 students who were based at the Ayotzinapa campus in Guerrero state. The attack sparked international protests. The students’ disappearance represented the violence and impunity that marked President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration. As result of this attack, there is now a growing interest in the history of these schools.

You write that “whether explicitly stated or not, education is a tool to implement the social, political, and economic path of a country.” Why was the curriculum at these schools so important?

The ways in which education officials envisioned the social and economic role of the normales rurales changed over time and coincided with the broader political path of the country. In the 1930s, the schools were imagined as part of the plan to implement socialist education and land distribution. In the 1940s, and more so in the '50s and '60s, education officials wanted the schools to contribute to the capitalistic development of the nation.

In 1969, the department of education implemented an education reform that closed down approximately half of its 29 normales rurales. The government converted half of the campuses into secondary technical agricultural schools. The reform aided in then-President Díaz Ordaz’s goal to annihilate student protests, but also to promote technical education.

This clashed with the political ideologies of the student body that continued to conceptualize the normales rurales within a social justice framework.

You initially planned to base your research on Mexican spy reports, but the government unexpectedly limited access to those documents when you began your doctoral program. How did that setback affect your research?

The closing of the archives of the Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS) was a blow to Mexico’s process of truth, justice, and memory. The opening and closing of those archives, and the different censoring processes the files have gone through over the past 20 years, are worthy of their own dissertation. There is a group of historians in Mexico working to highlight the importance of the archives and to expose the inconsistencies in how the government has handled them.

As it relates to my own research, I was forced to be more creative with my sources. I spent more time than I initially expected traveling to the normales rurales. With the help of other investigators and current teachers in those schools, I was able to access to the administrative files of five existing normales rurales. This is one of the contributions of my work – the vast archival base. The administrative archives that I accessed are rich in information related to the Ministry of Public Education and are not available elsewhere. In my research, I especially highlight the punitive development of policy in the normales rurales to try to control student participation on campus.

In addition to your dissertation, you’re working on an oral history project that brings together the life experiences of students at these schools who, after their schooling, joined an armed guerilla organization in the 1970s in Guadalajara. These oral histories will eventually be published as a book of primary sources. What surprised you from your interviews with these former students?

I copublished Memorias Inquietas: De estudiantes rurales a guerrilleros urbanos in Mexico last year with Aleida García Aguirre, a visiting Fulbright Scholar at the University of Notre Dame and a Kellogg Research Visitor in 2019-2020.  The book is a collection of the life stories of four men who had never before talked about their experiences as armed militants and as political prisoners. Three of them were also normalistas rurales. Unlike others who have had the opportunity to tell their stories, these men silenced their past after they were released from prison as a survival mechanism to rebuild their lives. One of the men had never even spoken about this part of his life with his children.

The most fulfilling aspect of the project was participating in the personal process the men underwent as they narrated their experiences as normalistas rurales, as armed militants, and as political prisoners for the first time with someone outside their immediate family. Everyone who participated, including myself, experienced a personal transformation because of the project. We are currently in the process of translating the book into English. We hope the collection of life stories will serve as a primary source that can be used as a teaching tool for undergraduate courses.

Your work challenges the idea of Mexican exceptionalism – that Mexico was the lone stable democracy in 20th century Latin America. Instead, you argue that the government resorted to authoritarian methods to quell the student protests. What does your research explain about the nature of democracy in Mexico?

Other historians have argued that Mexico was not exceptional, and the tools employed by the government were in par with an authoritarian regime. My research adds to this narrative already laid out by others.

What I do with my research is insert the Ministry of Public Education and the normales rurales into the research on mid-20th century in order to show how the social anxieties of the Cold War seeped into education policy. Education officials, with the help of the corporatist state, employed authoritarian policies into the normales rurales as a way to control the movement of the students from these schools.

How has the Kellogg Institute helped move your research forward?

Kellogg has been a great support throughout my time here at Notre Dame. The Mexico Working Group and Latin American History Group provided an intellectual community to both learn from other scholars and to receive feedback on my own work. The Mexico Working Group has been especially important in my development – through the group I was able to both participate in and organize various conferences and colloquiums.

Perhaps the most valuable resource for me has been the Dissertation Year Fellowship. Because of the Kellogg, I have been able to finish my dissertation in a supportive and constructive environment. Without the sixth year funding, I would not currently be completing my dissertation.